Wednesday, November 26, 2014

John Bradley 1954-2014 | A brief tribute

John at work in Rhetoric House, Maynooth, 2001
John Bradley passed away on Friday 7th November 2014 after a short illness. In the time since, there have been a number of tributes to him both as a leading scholar and as a genuinely affable person. These include a statement from Kilkenny Archaeological Society, a piece in the Kilkenny People newspaper, and the setting up of a Facebook memorial page. In time these will, undoubtedly, be followed by considered obituaries in scholarly journals and magazines that critically assess his influence and impact on his areas of study. In the meantime, others have taken to social media to share photographs and memories, offer condolences to those he leaves behind, and voice thanks for his scholarship and friendship. I would simply like to add my voice to this growing body of personal tributes to a great scholar and a genial mentor.

May 1977
I first met John during 1990, the final year of my BA degree. As the incumbent staff hadn’t the background, he had been drafted in by the UCG Archaeology department to teach a module on medieval Ireland. After nearly three full years of the Rynne/Fanning/Waddell triumvirate, his sudden appearance in our midst made him appear as something rather rare and exotic. He began with an introduction of the course and of himself, and what would be expected in the module exam. At the end of our allotted time he announced that he would like to go for a coffee and that all and any members of the class were more than welcome to join him. From memory, something like a half-dozen of us took him up on the offer, trailing him down to UCG’s downstairs, but-not-quite-underground, restaurant. He insisted on paying for all the beverages , and our small group took up residence in a quiet corner. After some brief hesitations on the part of us students – until we realised that he really did want to hear our opinions and ideas – the conversation got going. Matt Seaver has recently described him as: “the first and foremost Irish medieval archaeologist, urban historian, raconteur, font of knowledge on literature, film, chess, opera and so many other subjects.” It was in the general ‘font of knowledge’ sense that he just blew me away - I was simply stunned at his breadth and depth of knowledge on so many subjects, and in awe of his ability to discuss them in a way that was both knowledgeable and accessible. After more than two decades, it is difficult to remember more than fleeting wisps of the conversation that day. That said, I do remember that it included him holding forth on the latest research on The War of the Gaedhil with the Gaill. I also remember him correcting someone in the group with the line 'Well, what Plato meant by 'Platonic Love' isn't what we mean by the phrase today!' ... it's funny the weird things that stick in your mind! The offers to join him for coffee over the course of the semester continued and the attendance from the class varied from week to week. I don't think I was there for every one, but I think I was there for most. I certainly know that John bought more than his fair share of coffee and we students benefited from his ability as a great teacher, conversationalist, and general Renaissance raconteur.

John being photographed by Cillian de Paor at the Roman baths in Bath
Inevitably, his course came to a conclusion and he left us with his assurances of the general outline of the exam paper and his fond farewells. On one final sally forth for coffee he gave a general invitation 'if you're ever in Dublin, look me up at my office in Newman House'. And with that he was gone from our university lives.

Well ... almost ...

The inevitable exams rolled around and although I did reasonably well in most modules, I failed John's section - hard! I went to talk to Etienne Rynne, the head of Department, about it and he explained that John had (as he promised) set the the paper before he left. It was one of those exams - if you'd been to the lectures and understood the structure of the topic, the questions would hold no terrors for you. I only began to understand what went wrong when Etienne took me through the paper ... question after question was the same ... He simply didn't agree with many of John's positions on medieval Ireland and marked down any student who failed to challenge them and mirror his own. In a number of other cases, he admitted that he was simply not aware of certain pieces of evidence or the more recent publications on John's reading list ... so mentioning them got you no extra marks. Etienne was an expert on many things, but marking Bradley's exam papers didn't appear to be one of them! As though it was some consolation, he did remark that 'quite a few of your class didn't do so well on this module'. My final mark of 14% remains the lowest I ever achieved in any exam (although an 'Inter Cert' mock exam in French comes a close second at 14.5%).

John Bradley holding forth at Conway Castle, March 1981
- with Kieran Campbell (left) and Joanna Wren (right)
Despite my abysmal failure in the medieval Ireland course, I did manage to get a degree and leave university in 1991. I took a job on the Loop Head peninsula in west Clare writing a chapter on the archaeology of the Parishes of Carrigaholt and Cross for a local history & archaeology publication [here]. My research for the project occasionally took me to Dublin and, on one occasion, I decided to take John up on his offer and call in to Newman House. My intention was merely to say 'hi' and, if he had the time and interest, attempt to repay some of kindness and buy him a coffee or two in return. That may have been the plan, but it didn't quite work out that way ... I was heartily welcomed, handed a mug of coffee, sat down and ordered to relate all available news of the Galway archaeology scene and associated gossip. Then he turned to asking what I was working on and what I was doing in Dublin. When I explained my reasons for being in the city, and why this would have to be a short visit as I needed to get back to the National Library before they closed, he dismissed all my objections. He explained that he had many of the works I was looking for to hand in his own office and that I was to make myself at home and find a place to read and research at my leisure. My memory is that finding a place to sit was more of an issue than it might have been at the National Library - although he had a relatively lavish office space and a multitude of desks, chairs, and shelving, every available surface appeared to be covered in books, journals, maps, and notes. Thus began a tradition - all too short-lived - of visiting Dublin to use John's personal library, with the immense benefit of the company and guidance of the genial librarian himself. Every so often he'd ask what I was reading or looking for, and make suggestions. Once I'd read the offered paper, we'd discuss it, and this would inevitably lead to further questions along the lines of 'yes, but have you read this?' There was a grim predictability that I had not, in fact, read the author or paper to which he referred. After some searching, the relevant volume was usually found (even if he had to go digging for it) and the cycle would begin again. I couldn't tell you all I read and discussed under John's mentorship during this highly productive period, but it was quite substantial! I can, however, clearly recall that this was the first place where I was introduced to the Biblical apocrypha - though how exactly we got a conversation around to them, I have no idea. I remember that he picked the volume up off one of his shelves, thrust it into my hand and said something like 'they're an excellent read' ... and that was the next hour or two sorted!

Rhetoric House, Maynooth, 2001
On one occasion he mentioned that the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins had died in Newman House. Having been forced to read his works as part of my 'Leaving Cert' course, and not yet developed a taste for his 'sprung rhythm' technique, I may have had a less-than-kind interest in seeing the place where he finally expired. I presumed that the room in question would be in another office such as John's, or similarly locked away from the general visitor - all the more so as it was well after-hours and we were practically the only people left in the building. John said 'not at all' and proceeded to give me directions to another floor and instructions to go looking for a particular door, assuring me that it would be open. I followed the directions and found the door. As he had promised, it was indeed unlocked. All the same, I merely stood inside the threshold to observe the place where Hopkins breathed his last before hurriedly retreating. What Mr Bradley had neglected to inform me was that the room had changed uses in the time since Hopkins passed away in 1889. It was now filled with cubicles and wash-hand basins, as it was,in fact, the ladies toilets. I came back to John's office to find him waiting and smiling. Realising that I'd been set up, I asked 'It's the women's toilets, isn't it?'. 'Yes', he replied 'but did you go in? Most people just stand outside the door!'

John with Niall Burgess (centre) and Gabriel Cooney (right)
at Harlech Castle on 22 March 1981
These days of research and mentoring usually ended with John insisting that we go for dinner to one of the nearby restaurants. Although he never came out and said it, I did get the feeling that he had quietly decided that I required mentoring to improve my palate and culinary experience. He would usually recommend that I try a dish I'd never had before and then hold forth on the best wines to accompany the food. Coming from a family whose sole encounters with wine had been a bottle of the ubiquitous Blue Nun at Christmas, these were conversations much to be cherished. It all came back to the conversation - so much knowledge on so many things, so freely given, and still time to listen to a socially-awkward kid like me. I really do wish that I could remember specific lines and comments, but I'm afraid that it's mostly gone from my memory. I could blame advancing middle age or general memory deficiencies, but the truth is that an awful lot of it was destroyed as it was created - crushed under an onslaught of good food and alcohol. I do have one abiding memory though from when I asked John if he cooked at home on  a regular basis. 'It would not be a good idea' he replied, 'I'd spend all my time stirring the pot with one hand and refilling my wine glass with the other - it wouldn't end well'. Inevitably, with desert and coffee put away, I'd attempt to pay the bill ... or, after haggling, even my share of it. John would have none of it - on practically every occasion he insisted on paying for the lot, only occasionally allowing me to contribute towards the tip for the serving staff. Try as I might, he refused all my attempts to return the favour and buy him dinner. I remember explaining that I felt indebted to him - even if just for the series of great dinners, if not for all his time assisting and directing my research and reading. His explanation was simple and elegant - he understood that I owed debts and that these would have to be repayed ... but not to him. His hope was that, when the opportunity arose, I would help future students or those just staring out on their careers and buy them the occasional meal or just a cup of coffee where needed. He seemed to like the idea of a kindness expressed now, flowering somewhere else at a time in the future - bearing fruit in another generation.

Criccieth Castle, Wales, 1981
As these things go, I changed jobs and research projects changed too. My opportunities to travel to Dublin and make use of John's magnificent library dwindled. He eventually took a job in Maynooth (where he taught my youngest sister for a little while), and we all but lost contact. However, his entreaty to help the next generation of students has stuck with me and - where it has been within my powers - I have striven to do so ... even extending to taking them out to dinner, and only allowing them to make a contribution towards the tip. I have no doubt that there are many more stories like mine - tales of great conversations, experiences of kind mentoring, and stories of time well spent in his company. Some are beginning to appear on his memorial facebook page and more will undoubtedly follow. There has been some discussion that he deserves a more permanent memorial, such as a fully researched biography. If it were to come to pass, I'd certainly support it. Personally, I'd love to think that a Gedenkschrift will appear in time, or that on of the institutions he worked for will name a lecture hall or reading room in his honour. Even if none of these come to pass, John leaves us with a much greater memorial - generations of students whose lives he touched and inspired. I won't deny that John's passing robs us of a great scholar, a lively conversationalist, a caring teacher, and a truly kind and caring person. But, while we remember him, his kindness and his enthusiasm - and strive to do the same for future generations - his legacy will endure and bear fruit for generations to come.

Robert M Chapple (failed medievalist)

All photographs are by Thaddeus Breen and are reproduced by kind permission.

Dr. Melanie C Maddox is hoping to organise a session in memory of John Bradley for the Third Annual Symposium on Medieval and Renaissance Studies (June 15-17, 2015) in St Louis. Provisionally titled 'The Archaeology & History of Ireland’s Medieval Irish Town: A Session in Memory of John Bradley', for more information see: here.

Should anyone feel the desire to record a personal tribute to John, you'll find a ready home and welcome audience at the John Bradley - in memoriam Facebook page. However, should anyone wish to, I also offer an open platform on this blog.